Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Public Justice and the Mommy Wars



March 2, 1998

On January 7, President Clinton announced the largest single domestic initiative of his administration, a $21.7 billion, five-year program to expand child care. Within days, it was attacked as biased against women who stay at home. "The president had a lot to say about mothers who work outside the home," said U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID). "Let's get it straight, Mr. President. All moms work. No one should be left out."

As the federal government seeks to address what it says is a crisis in child care, the stage is set for what some are calling the "mommy wars." Should aid for child care target working moms or stay-at-home moms?

The federal government already assists parents with child care costs through state block grants and the dependent care tax credit. Block grants go to states to subsidize the child care costs of low income families. Tax credits are available to any family with child care costs. The president's initiative would greatly expand these two programs by helping pay for child care (at an estimated cost of $13.2 billion), by promoting early learning ($6.8 billion), by improving the quality of child care ($900 million), and by building more after-school programs ($800 million).

Although critics question whether a "crisis in child care" even exists, the White House points to a ground swell of support for helping working families and those coming off welfare to find safe, affordable child care. The White House claims the president's proposals focus on working parents who play by the rules and go to work every day, but who are struggling to make it and don't have a choice about staying home. Republicans argue that the president's plan discriminates against stay-at-home parents because it only subsidizes commercial day care and does nothing to enable parents to stay home with their children. They want to extend dependent-care credit to families with non-working spouses or to increase the $500-per-child tax credit passed in last year's tax bill.

Among Christian groups in Washington, there are two main reactions. The first argues that two-thirds of American families with children already have one parent staying at home. These families don't want child care subsidies, they want tax relief. Since parents are the best child care givers, they ought to be encouraged to spend more time with their children. The president's plan sends the wrong message, giving preference to day care centers and perhaps discouraging parents from caring for their own kids.

Another reaction agrees that parents are the best child care givers, but it sees the need of many families who can't afford to have a parent stay at home. Of particular concern are one-parent families struggling to balance work and home obligations. But even in many two-parent families both parents work to make ends meet. These families don't benefit from tax cuts because at the lower end of the income scale they have little or no tax liability.

Christians must insist, of course, that government programs cannot replace the quality of parental child care. Public justice requires government to respect and encourage this parental role. But due respect for parents does not oblige opposition to government subsidies (whether through vouchers or tax credits) for out-of-home child care. Government can play a supportive role in helping secure safe, quality care for children whose parents must work. Public justice requires government to protect these children.

Washington may be arguing over whether the government should first help mothers in the labor pool or mothers in the car pool. Just policy should focus not on one or the other but see to it that all parents are respected and all kids protected.

—Jerry S. Herbert, Trustee
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”